Benicio Del Toro dons the insurrectionist garb and machetes his way through jungles and mud as the revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's massive biographical homage. Del Toro pulls out all the stops in portraying the revolutionary icon and, if anything, Che is a tribute to Del Toro's perseverance. But Soderbergh's version of Che is too good to be true: Movie Che is a towering idealist who just keeps on coming, but he lacks any sense of character. He is heartless, all computer chips and wires inside. He's the Revolutionator.
Soderbergh's relentlessly uncommercial enterprise logs in at 268 minutes and is split into two parts. Part One charts Che's involvement with Fidel Castro in overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, concentrating on the popular grassroots campaign that began with 80 peasants. Part Two jumps to Guevara's final revolutionary sprint, the failed uprising in Bolivia, the antithesis of the Cuban campaign, where the Bolivian peasants abandon him and betray him to the Bolivian army. Che is then hunted down like a junkyard dog and murdered. Article continues below
Soderbergh and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen present both sections as in-depth chronicles of military campaigns, and history buffs will be slobbering as they chart each skirmish and surprise attack. The Cuban campaign in Part One unfolds in widescreen glory, Soderbergh adeptly using the wide frame to convey the popular outpouring of support for the upstart revolutionaries. Del Toro has Che lapse into bouts of asthmatic coughing which, thanks to revolutionary success, he manages to keep under control. The successful Cuban campaign is intercut with black-and-white shots of Che being interviewed on a visit to New York City after the Cuban revolution, where he addresses the United Nations. This section is all tied up in a bow when Che says, "When we're done in Cuba, I will bring the revolution to all of Latin America."
Part Two jumps to the doomed Bolivian campaign and the composition constricts to 1.85:1, successfully entombing Che in the frame and sealing his doom. This section is completely chronological and lurches forward with titles announcing the passage of days until Day 341 is reached. In this failed campaign, the military strategies and the battles are continually undercut and lost and Che's asthma gets a lot worse. The peasants abandon him and after Day 341, time slows down to a crawl as Che is captured by the army and executed.
Soderbergh presents the two campaigns like a military wonk reporting on CNN, rendering the whole enterprise academic. Despite that, for this reviewer the film was not an unending bore as others have argued, but rather a fascinating, intriguing experiment that, though almost five hours in length, actually zips along... for what that's worth. Sadly, it's not worth much. It is Classics Illustrated junk food history being told: Not a film but an illustration, a hagiographic veneer, like one of those Stalin films the U.S.S.R. made at the height of World War II to rally the populace behind their fearless leader. But who are the people (if anyone) watching this film meant to rally behind? Who is this Che?
Soderbergh's Che is a shallow, artificial archetype. In the film, Che calls himself a pure revolutionary, which is "the highest level of humanity." Like a wildcat oil-rigger insurrectionist, Che "goes where he is needed." But this Che never has to explain what his revolutionary ideals are. The closest he gets to any kind of response is when an interviewer asks him, "What is the most important quality for a revolutionary to possess?" And he banally responds, "Love." Here we have a Che who keeps exhorting his underlings to "stay focused," but focused on what we are not given a clue.
Worse, there is no narrative drama, no psychological depth, and no exploration of Guevara's personal history (his marriages, his family, what shaped him). Soderbergh asks us to accept Che without thinking or coming to any conclusions about him. As a result, in Part One, Che comes across like a subject out of Leni Riefenstahl; in Part Two, his tortures of the damned could have been directed by Mel Gibson.
Because of the vacuum created by the main character, Che unravels. There is a scene in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry in which a character written by the protagonist is not fully developed and not fully focused in the author's mind. As a result, when the fiction is imaged on screen, all the characters in the frame are in focus except for the one unfocused character, who is seen, literally out of focus in the shot. In Che, Che Guevara is an amorphous blur in his own film.